Book review: 'Games and Rituals' finds intrigue in the mundane
"Games and Rituals" by Katherine Heiny (Knopf)
A driving examiner falls for the new guy. A woman wonders what to do about her teenage son who may be experimenting with drugs. A delayed flight turns into a trip down memory lane at a small-town airport bar.
After two novels and a separate short story collection, Katherine Heiny is back with "Games and Rituals," a delightful bundle of offbeat dramedy fiction.
Heiny grabs readers from the jump in "Chicken-Flavored and Lemon-Scented," when driving examiner Colette realizes that Ted Bundy must have taken a driving test, and some unknowing person was there in the car with him.
The DMV suddenly got a lot more interesting. Thus, Heiny's superpower: Finding intrigue in the mundane.
Colette considers her fledgling feelings for the latest addition to their team as she moves through the surprisingly exciting day-to-day of her job, fleshing out her tiny corner of the world. "Chicken-Flavored" sets a precedent that carries on throughout the collection, making the ordinary extraordinary while saying just the right things to elicit a surprised but delighted snort.
Heiny takes universal topics, like the strange feeling of being a teen again when you enter your childhood home, and puts a humorous slant on them. In "Twist and Shout," a daughter stays with her aging and possibly senile father after he mistakes his hearing aid for a cashew and eats it. Jarring bits of information drop in matter-of-factly, making an otherwise morose short story feel like a delirious improv set.
Not all accounts are as punchy as that, though. The title story is a slow-burn series of vignettes that stitch together a handful of months by describing the narrator's games, like swapping memories with her best friend, and rituals, like brushing her teeth with her boyfriend before he heads home for the night. These evolve as her life chugs along toward the story's dismal conclusion.
Contributions like "561" harken back to a theme of infidelity that Heiny seems forever drawn to. Charlie must help her husband, Forrest, move his ex-wife, Barbara, whom Forrest cheated on with Charlie, out of the house Forrest and Barbara had shared together pre-divorce. Did you get all that? Don't worry, there are plenty of pages devoted to this strange, bitter love triangle. It's one of the previously published short stories in "Games and Rituals" and is literally and metaphorically the longest of the collection.
The book is thoughtfully arranged to shift gears here, and the next story is refreshingly newer and shorter.
"Pandemic Behavior" follows a migraine-sufferer, adrift in the early days of the pandemic, as she begins to suspect her neurologist isn't really helping. Too soon for pandemic stories? Not if you're Katherine Heiny. The balance of seriousness with humor and irony makes those early days funny to look back on, rather than traumatic. Plus, it has possibly the most apt description of a migraine I've ever read.
So whether it's a man unhappy in his marriage, the woman he's cheating with, the woman whose husband is cheating on her, or a different man unhappy in his marriage, each life feels unique, precious and worth exploring. And at a digestible 20 pages per story, Heiny's "Games and Rituals" is great for on-the-go, stop-and-start reading when you need a little oomph in your day.